Ethan Zuckerman on civic engagement

It’s easy to find alarming evidence that we’ve lost our way when it comes to civics in the US. But longtime global activist and MIT prof Ethan Zuckerman says there’s a lot to get excited about too, if we’re willing to think in new ways about what it even means to be civically engaged in the digital age.

Ethan’s working with a group of scholars and practitioners (I’m one of them) to track how young people are expressing voice and exerting agency in public spheres through participatory politics. Registering to vote or campaigning for a candidate are obvious and important political moves. But so is appropriating Occupy for hurricane relief, mobilizing Hunger Games fans to organize for real-life civil rights, or producing a libertarian music video professing a crush on the economist Friedrich Hayek, (thanks Liana Gamber Thompson).

Dml civics 022

But here’s the rub. If we’re willing to take this expansive view of civics, how do we start to make sense of what any given activity really achieves in the world? When does “voice” make a difference? That’s the question Ethan took on this week in his keynote, How Do We Teach Digital Civics? at the Digital Media and Learning conference in Chicago. He offered this diagram as a way to map actions into one of four quadrants.

Want to figure out where your own civic moves fit in the mix? You can watch Ethan’s whole talk here. It’s an attempt to envision an approach to civics that engages young people’s imaginations and networks rather than telling them what to do.

Electoral College college

It's time for some American Democracy 101. Every election cycle, it frustrates me to no end that most news outlets spend an inordinate amount of time talking about the latest polls without explaining the significance those polls actually have on the outcome of a presidential election that isn't truly decided by the voters. My Halloween wish this year was for someone to explain the electoral college to me, and Twin Cities journalist Frank Bures has obliged*.

This piece has actually been around since 2000, but I think it's a nice explanation of what the electoral college is, where it comes from, and why it's going to matter to you tonight.

The only votes that count in this election will be cast in mid-December by the 538 members of the electoral college. That's who you and I will vote for on November 7: electors for Bush or electors for Gore, and their votes are the currency of presidential politics. Each state gets as many electors as it has representatives and senators. In all but two states, the winning party takes all the state's electoral votes.

...At first, in several states, there was no popular presidential vote. For decades after 1787, in states like Delaware, New York, and Georgia, the legislatures chose the electors. In South Carolina, there was no popular vote for the chief executive until 1860. But today, party loyalty prevents electors from acting as the free agents envisioned by the founders. In 99% of the cases, the electoral vote is a formality.

...Electors tend to be either ordinary people—teachers, carpenters, middle managers, retirees, and lawyers' or party activists sent to the state capital for half an hour of raw power. Some, like Marc Abrams, a 1996 Oregon elector I talked to in the course of researching this article" are blasé about choosing the most powerful man on earth. They voted in a room in the Capitol basement. It took about twenty minutes, and hardly anyone noticed they were there. When I asked Abrams how it felt, he said, "It was sorta cool. "

Read the full story at Byliner

*Of course, I also wished for all the children of the world to join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. And for a million dollars to be placed, in my name, in a Swiss bank account.

Image: doris day, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from velvettangerine's photostream

YA legal thriller about civics and the US judicial system

Joel sez, "'Wainwright for the People' is a young adult book for ages 10 and up that teaches basic civics, with a focus on our judicial system, in the form of a legal thriller, accompanied by Student and Teacher Guides, made available as a free download under a Creative Commons license. Co-written by a former Assistant District Attorney and a former high school English Teacher, Wainwright for the People builds on the tradition of using literature to educate. Ten years after No Child Left Behind left civics instruction behind, 'Wainwright for the People' will offer schools a way to use an exciting story to teach students about our fundamental rights and system of justice."

Gideon Wainwright is suspended from school when he takes the fall for pulling a fire alarm while breaking up a bully attack. Forced to intern for his Assistant District Attorney mother while under suspension, Gideon is thrust into the middle of an investigation that seems just a little too close to his troubles at school. Gideon’s adventure propels him through the justice system as he, and readers, learn the fundamental concepts behind the Bill of Rights and our legal system.

Co-written by a former Assistant District Attorney (Joel) and a former high school English Teacher (Stacey), Wainwright for the People builds on the tradition of using literature to educate, in the same way To Kill a Mockingbird forced us to confront racism. Joel regular speaks to middle schools on Law Day and Constitution Day about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and our system of justice. In need of a story to engage kids and provide a context in which learning can flourish, Joel sketched out the ideas for Wainwright based on his real life experiences as an A.D.A. in the Bronx...

American Bar Association Publishing has agreed to publish the story of Wainwright for the People upon completion. The manuscript is due in October of 2012. By the end of this year the curriculum will be developed. Publication is expected in March of 2013.

Consistent with ABA Publishing’s practices, no advance has been offered. In addition, because Wainwright for the People is way outside the ABA’s normal catalog of law books, marketing will largely be our responsibility. ABA has encouraged our Kickstarter campaign and generously donated the ePub edition of Wainwright for a reward, but it will be through our own efforts that Wainwright will get into the hot little hands of student readers.

Wainwright for the People (Thanks, Joel!)

Kickstarting a book about the characteristics shared by US VPs, first ladies and presidential appointees

Ian Randall Strock, author of the Random House book The Presidential Book of Lists, writes with news of a companion volume, Ranking the Powers Behind the Oval Office: Vice Presidents, First Ladies, and Presidential Appointees, which he hopes to produce through the good graces of direct reader support in the form of a Kickstarter project:

So I'm coming to you, the Kickstarter community, to help fund the completion of Ranking the Powers Behind the Oval Office: Vice Presidents, First Ladies, and Presidential Appointees.

Ranking the Powers... will share its format with the first book: a series of top-five lists comparing and contrasting the people closest to the President. It will be divided into sections covering the Vice Presidents, the First Ladies, other family members, members of the Presidential Cabinets, and the Supreme Court justices. There will also be general sections giving information on all the Vice Presidents and First Ladies, and my determination of the characteristics of the average Vice President and average First Lady.

My research is completed, and the writing is nearly finished. Now I turn to you for the financial help to turn this labor of love into a finished, presentable, readable book.

Ranking the Powers Behind the Oval Office (Thanks, Ian!)